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September 3, 2010 / missmarymax

The Agony and the Activism: Pain and Social Change

Somehow, in the course of my college years, I turned into an activist.  I don’t entirely recall how this happened or when — precisely — I attached the label to my identity.  I can’t place the exact period when I began considering my interest in activism a key component of who I am.  Yet, I have a pretty good sense of why I became this person, and I suspect the answer — at its broadest place — applies for many of the activists I know.

Quite simply, the answer is pain.

I turned to activism, originally, as an absolutely desperate response to the pain I was feeling.  I was trying my damndest to locate a way I might respond to personal struggles that no longer felt (solely) personal.  I was tired of trying to fix my “ugliness” by fixing my body, tired of trying to manage being silenced by not speaking up.  I wanted to stop taking my frustration out on myself, to start identifying responsible institutions and calling out their misdeeds.  It was time — past time — to externalize the rage that had triggered my years’-long implosion.  It was time to battle the social forces contributing to my situation, instead of battling to avoid the pain they caused.

Activism quickly became an outlet for me, a main means of maintaining my sanity.  The instances of fat-hate and body-shaming that once triggered restriction and purging, a sense of powerlessness or a full-on depressive shut-down, began to trigger culture-jamming, petition-filing, or letter-writing campaigns.  Instead of isolating, I started hosting events.  Instead of self-injuring, I began to break out my soapbox.  For the most part, this has served me well.

But it hasn’t always been an easy substitution.  I turned to activism — both consciously and unconsciously — to replace several less constructive behaviors, — behaviors like cutting, binging, purging, restricting, and refusing to leave my room.  On the surface, this looks like a phenomenal trade: I replaced speaking with silence, disconnection with community, the sense of powerlessness with an increasing awareness of my own capacity to create change. 

However, my experience of activism retained a number of old bruises, injuries that once colored those behaviors-now-replaced.  The pain — which before led me to cut and to starve — began leading me into better territory, but it continued to be pain and it continued to lead.  Although I invested in activism, I remained angry, devastated, and at the end of my rope.  More importantly, my activism reflected this.  It reflected my desperation, my impulsiveness, the panicked terror of my flight-or-fight instinct.  I wasn’t sitting down and strategically considering means for effective dialogue.  I wasn’t looking to engage anyone, to reflect and heal within a community.  I was — violently and venemously — hitting the warpath.

I did this again and again and again.  I flew into campaigns without fact-checking. I flew into campaigns without considering my methods.  I flew into campaigns without offering others the benefit of the doubt, without even gauging my own stamina, determining if I was up to the task.  With disastrous results, personally and politically, I flew into campaigns on the coattails of my rage.

The best example I have: My freshman year of college, I came across an issue of the now-defunct women’s magazine Missbehave, while perusing the magazine section at a local bookstore.  Missbehave billed itself as a “whip-smart testament to urbane awesomeness” and came out quarterly from its base in Brooklyn, NY.  That issue (from the Spring of 2007) featured Jenny Lewis as a cover model and boasted articles on Dina Lohan and Mickey Mouse. 

I can only  tell you this, now, with the assistance of Google. I remember none of it off the top of my head, because — at the time — I saw none of it.  Literally.

The term “blind panic” is cliche, but it’s also accurate. When I saw that cover, I saw exactly two things before everything started to blur.  The first was an invitation to “play [their] eating disorder board game.”  The second: a header announcing this “special rexi issue.”  I immediately flipped to page 57 to see the board game – but nothing further registered. I couldn’t think straight; I certainly couldn’t read.  The magazine in my hand and the racks of magazines around me disappeared; they became — suddenly — equal parts blurry and bright.  About 95% of the world faded out of focus.  The other 5% went grayish, blinding.  “Eating disorder board game” burned through the brightness, and my heart began beating so fast, I felt dizzy.
Worse yet: this was not an uncommon experience.  The panic attack was fast becoming my go-to response to nearly any discussion of eating disorders.  I routinely walked out of classes when the disease was mentioned, generally shaking and moments away from tears.  Throughout my freshman year, I failed to finish only one assignment: a response to a reading that included a single, brief mention of bulimia.  I was increasingly at a loss, unable to control my panic and disempowered by its presence.  Try as I might, I could not avoid every comment, joke, article, or metaphor related to eating disorders, and when I came across them, the panic that followed was immediate, undeterred, and nearly all-encompassing.
So, I turned to activism.  Desperate for an alternative to panic, I turned to taking action.
After I saw the cover of Missbehave, I called in the cavalry.  I wrote a call-to-action, sent it via e-mail to 45 of my closest friends, re-posted it on Livejournal, contacted NEDA’s Media Watchdog program and Missbehave itself.  I put together an army, and we attacked with all the righteousness of the underinformed.  The “game” Missbehave featured — which had no positive outcome and intended to creatively underscore the seriousness of , the ridicuousness of viewing them as anything but deadly — lost all its nuance on my watch.  It was wrongwrongwrongwrongwrong, badbadbadbadbad and — like the terror flooding my body as I attempted to discuss it — must be stoppedstoppedstoppedstoppedstopped.
Eventually, some of my more rational friends calmy and carefully called out my misstep.  Others helped pick up the pieces when, ashamed, I failed to find much meaning in the experience beyond “I am a walking mistake-maker who shouldn’t be allowed to speak. I can’t do anything right.”  No true dialogue occurred as the result of that early attempt at activism.  Instead, the discussions reflected the war that created them; they rang with attack and defense. Feeling myself crumble, I spent a weekend away from the dorms, curled up in my mom’s apartment, trying to distance myself from this overwhelming experience of failure.

Now, why am I telling this story?  I could tell it out of a desire to publicly flog myself, three years after the fact, for what I still consider a serious misstep.  I could tell it to draw attention to the complicated content of a publication no longer in print, to poll readers who tend toward particularly savvy insights into ED-related content on the exact extent to which I was out of line.  I could tell it, as an attempt to beg forgiveness from Mary H.K. Choi, who — with the same blunt fatigue I often express in such situations — told a member of our anti-Missbehave cavalry, “Dude, we are on the same damn side.”  And perhaps, on some semi-unintentional level, I am doing a combination of these things now.  But I draw on this story, intentionally, to help illustrate the type of activist I once was, the activist I’m now actively struggling not to be.

I came to activism out of pain.  Pain over being mistreated.  Pain over being shamed.  Pain over being silenced.  Pain over unnecessary losses and immense, preventable griefs.  Many of us who do good work come to it from bad places.  Beaten down, bearing baggage, we find activism and work to make meaning out of the irreperable messes in our pasts.  When this is true, activism — like freedom — is what we do with what’s been done to us. 

To be clear, I take no issue with the relationship between my activism and my pain.  The worst storms that have befallen me, the most violent disasters that have terrorized my friends — begin, through activism, to do good.  Taking action doesn’t erase the brutality; it doesn’t transform my past or curttail those immediate responses of devastation, anxiety, and rage.  But — when I can’t have sunlight — I try and settle for storms with purpose.

I reiterate: the issue I take is not with pain.  I don’t know a single activist who became an ambassador of zir cause(s) in a bubbly, pain-free way.  I respect the pain I feel when I witness oppression, silencing, shaming, and the rest.  I respect it for reminding me how much I care about humans, how much it matters when we are mistreated, how much of a stake I have in a world that does better (by all of us) than this world that so often missteps.  Understanding that I come to activism bloodied and bruised is one thing.  It’s a good thing, in that it allows me to stop and check in with myself, to determine what I’m up for in a given moment, to make sure that when I’m working on “taking over” the world, I’m also taking time to take care of myself.  The experiences — raw and sharp-edged as they are — that made these causes matter to me are not at fault. 

But they are also not in charge.   My pain is not the problem, but it is also — most definitely — not in the driver’s seat.

At times, pain can help me navigate.  It can draw attention to This or That atrocity by the side of the road, the same way that — as a passenger — I draw attention to the more ridiculous billboards my friends and I pass, while driving.  It can make suggestions — the way that, as a passenger, I make suggestions to my friends and family — about which particular food joint we stop at or which route we take home.  Pain can draw my eye in certain directions.  It can offer its input.  It can have my attention, but it can’t have the wheel.

Pain needs to stay a nondriver.  When it has access to the gas pedal, pain tends to floor it.  It speeds past important questions like “what do I need?” and “am I respecting the others involved?” Pain-driven activism takes action, fast, in order to avoid breaking down.  It remembers a time when braking was the go-to response to triggers, when stopping and shutting down were givens.  It wants to ensure we never return to this state again, and it will happily break the speedometer in the process of making this happen.  Pain — to put it bluntly — drives stupid.  It panics, it speeds, it has road rage. 

I don’t want pain to drive my activism, because I don’t want to use activism, the way I used cutting, purging, and the rest.  I don’t want to use activism to avoid feeling, when really I need to sit down and scream/ remember/ cry.  I don’t want to use activism to attack other people, the way I once attacked myself.  I don’t want to use “activism” as an excuse not to listen; I don’t want to silence others to avoid feeling silenced.  I want to draw a line, separating pain as a motivator for activism from activism as a method of inflicting harm.

I’m not the only activist who has been flat-out shittastic when it comes to engaging in dialogue.  I’m not the only one with buttons easily pushed or fists forever at the ready.  But I’m also not the only one who knows that activism-as-a-fight — with all the violence and power-play there implied — does not align with my ethics or my goals.  I’m not the only one who believes working for justice requires not only my goals, but my means also to be just.  And so when I commit to take a deep breath here and there, to communicate with respect, to try and laugh through the pain, I am also not the only one.  I’m not the only one who remembers we come to activism human.

Which is to say: we come to activism carrying our pain.  We do good when we recommit, continually, to this knowledge: Pain does not — and must not — carry us.



Leave a Comment
  1. Jennifer / Sep 3 2010 11:14 pm

    Very interesting – you make your point so clearly and it struck a chord for me. I am/was so upset over stupid Facebook status updates about “I support attempts to block the mosque from being built on Ground Zero” (I’m exaggerating) but why? Even typing that overblown statement gets my heart racing. I don’t mind people having opinions (I think) but I do mind them basing them on false information. I haven’t learned how to walk away.

    There’s pain there somewhere but I’m not an oppressed Muslim so it’s going to take a bit of digging.

  2. Alex@LateEnough / Sep 6 2010 6:26 pm

    Very well said. Learning to listen and respectfully disagree is the key to change. Determined. Humble. Honest.
    You are an activist I’d be honored to stand with.

  3. Elise Higgins / Sep 6 2010 9:28 pm

    Reading this was cathartic and inspiring. Thank you for writing it and sharing it with the interwebs. You’re incredible.

  4. Dana / Sep 8 2010 2:21 pm

    Thanks so much for this article. I’ve always felt mostly alone in my insights around this topic.

    I’ve been speaking with people about this for years!

    I’m 36 now, and came into radical activism in college in the mid-late 1990s. But even before that, I was always obsessed with social movements, feminism, the Civil Rights movement, the 1960s, the Holocaust, slavery, etc.

    Like yours, my activism was driven by my unconscious suffering, pain, and my new ability (through intellectual pursuits) to hopefully identify and destroy the cause of OTHER people’s suffering. I was originally in denial around the fact that I was really just seeking a new way to medicate my own seemingly unending depression, repressed, rage, self hate, and horrified sense of injustice everywhere, all the time.

    My activism attempts ended up being just as much failure, dysfunctional relationship, and repeated devastation as everything that came earlier in my life. But it just looked different, better, and sexier than the mainstream culture I’d always hated, plus it appeared so “empowered” because of all the smart-sounding politics, uber-cool punk/anarchist subculture, and razor sharp philosophies surrounding it.

    While finally having a sort of break-down about 10 years ago, I had to disengage from all the “activist” or so-called-radical stuff and people that I had been SO identified with. It was easy enough at that point because I’d become disenchanted with the disenchanted — and I’d judged and lost most of my activist friends. Nobody was radical enough for me. Little did I know that the unsatisfied hole inside me could never be filled by activism (as I was defining and approaching it then).

    Only through that breakdown and the help it led me to did I really begin to discover the true meanings of injustice, denial, freedom, slavery, healthy activism, and empowerment.

    This time of my life was an amazing, frightening journey to a new shore where I found true relief, affirmation, safety, connection, peace, and justice for once, and where it mattered most: Around my OWN life story and the previously-unacknowledged, invisible, culturally-approved crimes committed against me when I was a child, by my own parents and family.

    Suddenly, I began to make total sense!

    I finally experienced real and permanent healing of my issues (depression, addictions, bad relationships, self-hate, inability to bond, pain-fueled dangerous activism). This began when my awesome therapist supported me in understanding the real roots of my pain, the very real people who caused it, and the natural consequences/symptoms that one develops after being terrorized and violated like that.

    When I stopped focusing on “the man” and started focusing on the very real and specific people who did me very real harm when I was a defenseless innocent baby/toddler and little girl, I started to become free. I started to understand and sympathize with myself, instead of my abusers. I started learning to love myself instead of focusing on fighting to prove to my abusers/family that I was worthy of love and respect. I stopped hating myself for not being able to please or to feel good around my abusers/family.

    Not only that, I could start taking responsibility for my own life and taking direct actions that actually mattered and that would actually improve and change the quality of my life. Did that matter in the overall scheme of the world and all its shitty injustice? Yes. What good can I possibly do in the world, what can I really offer others without improving and nurturing my sanity, wellness, overall health, and sense of real inner peace? How can I help others find peace and joy while actively participating in abusive relationships? So, I left my abusive family system so that I could have the time/space and freedom to fully heal from what they did to me — and the time/space freedom to cultivate a new, conscious, healthy, chosen family.

    This has been the single best, scariest, and most important choice I’ve ever made in my life. Really, it was a choice to live. Staying in relationship with them would have led to serious illness, or much worse.

    While obsessed with activism, I got to maintain the denial that the source of my pain was something sort “outside” my own life and something sort of abstract WHILE, crazily, maintaining relationships with the abusers who caused my original suffering, demanded loyalty, valued denial at any cost, and trained me to self-destruct!

    We do not hurt, ignore, starve, endanger, and betray ourselves into states of deep suffering unless we are TAUGHT to do those things by very close people who we trusted and depended upon to teach us about life/self/relationships/men/women/love/family/nature/the world/our place in the world.

    “The man” and all the unjust bullshit in our culture and around the world is the SYMPTOM (not the cause) of little people not growing-up in safe, respectful, loving, conscious families who refuse to carry on age-old traditions of child-rearing that implicitly betray the child’s integrity with various forms of systematic mistreatment and neglect. When more people have the courage to say No to any/all cultural, social, traditional, tribal, and religious justifications for hurting children – societies can evolve.
    Conversely, when societies begin to place a higher value on things like creativity, innovation, wellness, and cooperation, approaches to parenting/education/socialization can and will evolve.

    To learn more about child mistreatment, the benefits of getting free from abusive family systems, and the sociology and history of child abuse, read almost any book by Alice Miller. It’ll change your life (and maybe your politics) forever! I highly recommend “For Your Own Good” and “The Body Never Lies” and “Free from Lies”

    To learn more about a natural, empowering, and creative therapeutic way to heal your past and to learn how to have healthier adult relationships with self, others, work, life, and creativity, check out the Inner Bonding process & Inner Bonding Counseling



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